Friday, 8 December 2017

Salonen Sibelius Finnish independence Lemminkäinen Suite

Lemminkäinen and the Swan of Tuonela
 Celebrating Finnish Independence (and Jean Sibelius's birthday) at the South Bank, London, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Vilde Frang and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  A very inspired performance, Salonen and the players no doubt responding to the sense of occasion.  The Royal Festival Hall  was illuminated in blue and white - the national colours of Finland - enhanced with gold, adding to the party atmosphere. The powerful brass motifs of Finlandia op 26 seemed to loom out of nowhere, at once ferocious and challenging, followed by timpani rolling like thunder. The woodwind theme with its heartfelt sincerity seemed at first fragile, but fragile things can grow strong : that's part of what Finlandia stands for.  Like a prayer, like an act of faith, the theme grew firmer until the brasses herald it with joy, and the percussion crashed round it. Though Finlandia is so well known as a stand alone,  it needs to be understood in the context of its origins in the Music for Press Celebrations op 25/26 which we heard yesterday. Please read more here.

Vilde Frang was the soloist in Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor op 47. This is another perennial, played by eminent masters. Frang is fragile looking, but her technique is strong. the freshness of her style brought out the sensitivity in the piece. The spirit of the hymn theme from Finlandia ! The freshness of Frang's style . Very moving.

But the highlight of this concert was an exceptionally vivid Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite op.22.  This is an early work, from the period of Finlandia and shows the young Sibelius finding his voice, drawing on the past in order to move forward.  Given that Wagner drew on Norse/Icelandic legend for Der Ring des Niebelungen, it would have seemed logical to create a saga based on the Kalevala.  Like Kullervo op,7 1892, and indeed the Music for Press Celebrations, the Lemminkäinen Suite is a series of scena, effectively four tone poems on the adventures of Lemminkäinen, a figure in the Kalevala.  In the first section, Lemminkäinen.and the Maidens of .Saari, the hero is youthful. Sweeping themes suggest open horizons. Salonen emphasized the underlying rhythmic pulse, for the young Lemminkäinen represents physical vitality. That's why he seduces all the maidens on the island.  Brief, more cautious figures, like an animal stalking prey, give way to exuberant rhythms : the thrill of the chase. Good contrast between "male" thrusting motifs and "female" dances and a very well executed denouement.  

Most impressively, though, Salonen  understood Lemminkäinen. as "abstract" music - layers of movement, shifting textures, swift changes of pace. There's a whole lot more to  Lemminkäinen than folklore. Salonen's approach is more sophisticated, musically, and puts more emphasis on Sibelius as a composer who understood structure, form and orchestration.  In the two movements in Tuonela, these multi levels  create density : shimmering sounds of great richness,  broken by sharp contrasts. The music tells the story. The swan glides gracefully. The "arrow" flies. The cor anglais melody indicated that something survives, but huge blocks of sound suggested overwhelming forces, looming upwards then crashing down.  In death Lemminkäinen's body parts are scattered, but he's restored to life by his mother, who makes him whole again.   Thus Salonen brought out the way Sibelius's music mirrors the narrative. In Lemminkäinen's Return , the line is once again vigorous,  the many layers united.

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